Nature Diary

Nature Diary – September

Otters, kingfisher and a heron feature in Brother Andy's September nature diary
A pair of otters sunbathing

By Brother Andy

The ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ has arrived – just as Keats described it in his poem Ode to Autumn. It’s the time of year when leaves begin to change colour and plants prepare to disperse their seeds. The green colour of leaves fades to reveal yellow and red pigments which have been masked throughout the Spring and Summer.

Red autumn leaves
Red autumn leaves

In some parts of the world, Canada for instance, this change can be so vivid that a tourist industry has grown around the spectacle. People travel to see the colours change from summer green to yellow, red and gold of autumn – particularly in New England and the upper Midwest; they call this leaf-peeping!

Fruits of all kinds are in abundance at this time of the year; blackberries, sloes, the haws of hawthorns, elderberries, rowan berries, rose hips, honeysuckle, holly berries and the berries of the Guelder Rose. I had overlooked the flowers but spotted branches of Guelder Rose berries growing in the hedgerows by the Vishnu Temple.

And this is precisely how it is meant to work – bright shiny colours attract a variety of animals (mainly birds but also mammals, like me) who eat the fruit and drop the seeds. Sometimes the seeds pass right through them to be deposited in some ready prepared manure. (Apparently, tomato plants quite commonly grow in sewage farms).

Have you ever opened up a rosehip and put the hairy seeds down someone’s back to act as itching powder? It is very effective and presumably has the same effect on birds who eat the hips and then spit out the irritating seeds.

In an effort to pedestrianise the ashram, Skanda Vale has a new car park which includes two large ponds. It is here that Brother Colin has been lucky enough to spot the electric blue and orange feathers of a kingfisher, perched on a branch above the pond looking for fish.

Kingfishers are UK residents all year round but other species prepare to migrate in Autumn. When Keats speaks of gathering swallows that twitter in the skies, he is presumably referring to these birds flocking together before the long journey back to Africa.

So it was with some surprise that I saw House Martins (close relatives of swallows) still feeding their young in a nest in the eaves of the Lodge roof. Thankfully the Indian Summer ensured an abundant supply of insects for the parents of the young nestlings.

Some butterflies (Peacocks, Red Admirals and Tortoiseshells) hibernate in the winter. On warm September days, it’s common to see these butterflies, bees and hoverflies collecting nectar from late flowering plants such as Buddleia. Presumably, this late intake of nectar increases the chances of survival of these insects over winter.

In the newly restored vegetable garden, a Painted Lady butterfly was spotted drinking nectar from some flowers. This is a truly remarkable butterfly that migrates from North Africa. Some individuals even reach as far north as Iceland.

At one time it was assumed that these Painted Ladies died out in winter… but research undertaken by the University of York in 2012 using radar, revealed that the butterfly does indeed migrate south each autumn. They make their return journey at high altitude, out of view of butterfly observers on the ground.

The return of the warm weather in mid-September caused our resident heron to assume an unusual posture as he stood in the sun on the edge of the Durga Lake. I was, at first, concerned that he was wounded but apparently his posture is ‘normal’ – we’re not sure whether he’s trying to cool down or dry his wings.

A sunbathing heron by the side of a pond

As I was quietly sitting in Reception wondering what else to record in this month’s diary, Emily burst through the door exclaiming ‘You never guess what?!’

She was understandably excited. She had been sitting on the bridge on the way to Deri when she was alerted by a splashing sound, and then the sight of two otters playfully chasing each other, very close to where she was sitting. One jumped out of the water and ran into the undergrowth carrying something in its mouth, presumably a fish.

This was exciting because the otter is a somewhat secretive species. They were once widespread in Britain but went into decline partly as a result of organo-chlorine pesticides (now no longer in use) and habitat destruction – particularly the drainage of wet areas. Numbers are slowly on the increase again.

It is encouraging that they have been seen here, as otters require clean rivers with an abundant, varied supply of food and plenty of bank-side vegetation to offer seclusion for their holts, or dens. It would be lovely to think that Emily’s otters are, like her, Skanda Vale residents but they can use up to 20 kilometres of river habitat. We will keep you posted on any future sightings.

Otter looking straight at the camera

The bridge that Emily was sitting on may have been built by Swami Ishwarananda but Uma, Kumi’s daughter, has laid claim to it by inscribing ‘Uma’s Bridge’ on the planks! Sounds like a good name to me. In another part of the ashram, at Craig Fryn, Elliot took some photos of a very large spider which we identified as a Four Spot Orb Weaving Spider; females can reach 17mm and are the heaviest spider in the UK.

On the opposite end of the scale are money spiders which are under 5mm long and build sheet webs (not the more familiar orb spider webs). These webs are like ‘silken hammocks’ and can be seen in large numbers, after a heavy dew, on the Vishnu field; I counted 6 different webs within a square metre.

4 spotted orb weaver spider in web

It has been estimated that there can be up to a million spiders (of different species) in a typical acre of field. Whatever you do, don’t tell any of your arachnophobe friends.

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